So far, Simoul Alva’s graphic design career has taken her from her birthplace in Mumbai, India, to Paris, Abu Dhabi, Russia, and now to New York, interning on Michael Bierut’s team at Pentagram. That’s a lot for any career; it’s pretty staggering when you consider that she’s yet to graduate with her B.A.
Alva, who we first met when she was volunteering at Mumbai’s Design Fabric Festival, works across typography, branding, illustration, and some pretty cool experiments in 3D design. Sure, her work’s great, but what’s even more clear is that she is very, very driven.
That age-old, rather charming designer cliche of having been a kid forever doodling rings true for Alva, and she was resolute about studying something creative, even if—again, a charming cliche—her parents are still getting to grips with exactly what typography and graphic design really are. They’re learning though: she recently won a certificate from the Type Directors Club for one of her typefaces “and as a result my mom now knows what a font is!,” she told The One Club. One of our favorite of her typefaces, Vixen, is designed as a display typeface created for large print formats, album artwork, headlines, titling, and “anyone with a personality,” as she puts it. “Hidden among voluptuous curves and high contrast forms is subliminal sense of fluidity and strength. Not for the invisible.”
She’s said it was a “very big deal” to break the news to her parents that she wasn’t going to become and engineer or doctor, that she was going to pursue image-making over science. And it’s perhaps that sense of proving herself—and proving the worth of design itself—that’s behind her consistent list of high achievements.
In her first year at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, India, Alva was awarded the Ratan Tata Scholarship, thanks to having been named best in her freshman class based on her grades for the year. That meant enough cash to help with a new laptop. Feeling your way through a new course, with a whole new cast of people, in a new city is never going to be easy. For many of us, the first year of studies can either feel like an impostor syndromic nightmare or a bit of a wild, new-found-freedom holiday before the real graft has to start. So what advice would Alva give to new students to get the best out of their courses from the get-go? “Make sure you use the resources, like the library, and really make the most of your time as a student,” she says. “Explore the potential of what each project can be. Remember that it’s not a client project, so you can really make anything happen.”
She adds, “I feel like design school doesn’t teach you everything you need to go and work somewhere, but it does give you enough of a platform. Don’t wait to be taught things. I was ready to put myself out there and get in touch with the people I wanted to work with.”
The subtext here is simple: put the hours in. During her second year, outside of class she focused on portrait drawing to “help amp up my drawing skills, so I’m a lot more confident,” she says. She also started working on freelance projects, taking advantage of her school’s “earn while you learn” program, which give students access to small commercial briefs and government projects that teach them how to deal with clients. “Design school doesn’t always tell you how to do that, or how sell your design, and communicating is really important,” she says. Adding that she taught herself website design “through a lot of trial an error, and testing on lots of different computers to make sure it makes sense on them all.”
Alva has taken on internships throughout her studies, including at Indian studios Codesign and Echostream, where she worked on a highly illustrative packaging project that went on to be recognized by Luezer’s Archive’s 200 Best Packaging in the World 2016-17. But we’d wager that the milestone most likely to have made her parents come round to the whole design-as-a-career-thing was representing India at the 44th Worldskills Abu Dhabi for Graphic Design. Worldskills sounds like a bonkers event in its breadth and format: young people under 23 years-old representing 45 different skills (from welding and electronic engineering to air-conditioning and refrigeration, hairdressing, painting and decorating, and of course, graphic design) have to “demonstrate technical abilities both individually and collectively to execute specific tasks for which they study and/or perform in their workplace” as the organizers put it.
Alva competed in Moscow and Abu Dhabi and won a Gold and Medallion of Excellence. “Every country’s there with their flag; it’s very patriotic, it’s very sweet,” says Alva, who had to take time away from her studies to undergo her mentorship for the competition at Indian studio Lopez Design in New Delhi. In retrospect, Alva has seen the value of all that hard work: she got to train with some of the best design studios in India and represent my country for something—something usually reserved solely for sports. “It taught me discipline, and how to work fast under pressure—we had to make an entire packaging project in six hours,” she says.“The training was intense, but now I can channel that way of working if I need it.”
Her tips for such nuts deadlines and pressure are that in competition situations, it’s all about keeping a cool head, being great in time-tight situations, and really knowing your stuff beforehand. “I think forgetting almost everything I’d learned about being slow and taking time to have a process. It was about making decisions quickly, so having a lot of practice beforehand and learning things like which typefaces you might want to use together beforehand really helps so you don’t have to spend time testing things out.”
When her Pentagram internship ends in September, Alva will return to India to finish her studies. After that, the world does really seem to be her oyster. “I want to work on projects that you see in the real world, that you see other people interact with—not just things that have no meaning, or which people who don’t come from a design background need help to understand. Hopefully I’ll keep working in brand design,” she says. But where? “I feel like there’s a lot to learn from outside India, but if I can put what I learned outside and make more sense of it at home, I’d like to do that. There’s a very refreshing aesthetic in India: people draw from the things they grew up on, and finally people outside are realizing ‘Wow, we missed out on so much.’”